Saturday, 17 December 2011

The death of the book - again

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)

This week, the BBC devoted an hour of prime-time viewing to exploring the birth, history and ultimate death of the book. It was an interesting programme, hosted by Alan Yentob, but also – because it was the BBC, after all – moderately pretentious.
            Two of the authors they interviewed stuck in my mind particularly.
            One did all his writing in a log cabin in the woods where he was at great pains to point out that he had neither a telephone nor Internet access, and from his comments he would probably have been quite pleased if there’d been no electricity either. Presumably, he would have been absolutely delighted if we had to go back to hammers, chisels and slabs of rock. I’ve never been able to understand the attitude some literary authors have that all modern technology is somehow an unwanted impediment which gets in the way and impedes the flow of ideas and creativity between writer and reader.
            The second one was perhaps even more bizarre, or unhinged. One of his proudest possessions was a book which he had eaten. He explained at some length how he had felt compelled to sit down one evening, tear the pages of the book into strips and then chew them thoroughly. And from what I remember, he then unravelled the masticated pages the following day and assembled them into a kind of sculpture. Unless I missed it, he never actually produced an explanation for this bizarre behaviour which made any kind of sense.
            They were, of course, both literary authors.
            Ignoring the loony tunes that Yentob had managed to track down, the programme was in fact quite entertaining. He visited various museums, printing works and the like, and produced a cogent explanation of the way in which the book had evolved. Once ink and parchment had been invented, the earliest type of book was the scroll, the name still enshrined in the way we move from page to page on a computer screen, using the scroll bars or scroll buttons. The problem with that kind of written medium is that it’s sequential, forcing the reader to start at one end and scroll through the entire text until he or she finds the bit that’s needed.
            The next stage was the codex, created by cutting parchment or some other medium into handy sized oblongs and then securing those oblongs along one side with thread or glue. This radical concept allowed the parchment to carry writing on both sides, but also allowed for random access – the reader could go straight to the appropriate page – and this is of course exactly what we have today. Every modern book is actually a form of codex.
            And, inevitably, a bunch of talking heads discussed the likely impact of the ebook on the world of publishing, and came to the predictable conclusion that they really had no idea what was going to happen. One interesting point that was made was that the essence of any book is not the cover or the binding or the typeface or anything physical – it’s the text itself, and the medium used to read it is almost irrelevant. Obvious, certainly, but worth emphasizing. One person likened the text of the book to a piece of music. The track of an album can be downloaded as an MP3 file, purchased on a CD or, if it’s old enough, on vinyl, but ultimately it’s just a stream of data, just as a book is ultimately just a stream of data, and the medium used to play the track or read the text doesn’t matter in the slightest.
            Whatever your views on Kindles and ebooks, I think it’s fairly clear that this method of reading is going to become more and more important as time passes, and within perhaps a couple of years at most, it’s likely that most people will be reading their books electronically rather than as hard copies, for convenience, if nothing else. I don’t know the size of the average reader’s library, but even the cheapest Kindle will hold 1,400 books, which I think is about three times more than I own, and the 3G Kindle can accommodate up to 3,500, which could well be quite literally a lifetime’s reading.
            And I suppose it’s worth just pointing out the other startling advantage of owning a Kindle. If there’s a fire or flood in my house and all my books are destroyed, I have to go out and buy them again. If the dog eats the Kindle, or I pour coffee over it or some other catastrophe strikes, all I have to do is buy a new unit. Every book that I’ve ever bought as a Kindle download will be available to me as soon as I turn on the new machine. You buy a book once but download it as many times as you want, within the same account.
            But the book as a physical object is far from dead. Yentob finished up in a bookstore equipped with a print on demand machine and, in the time it took the guy behind the bar to make him a cappuccino, this large machine had sourced, printed, bound and spat out a copy of Treasure Island. He even had a choice of editions and typefaces.
            So even if you leave your Kindle behind, at least in some coffee bars you can still select a book to enjoy when you get your daily fix of caffeine.

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